Making Town Government More Accountable         


          The Town Manager in the Town of Chevy Chase currently earns a salary of $ 159,500.00 per year.  A new contract has just been renegotiated by the Town Council to pay the Town Manager $163,500.00 per year, starting in July.  The salary is paid for with the tax dollars of Town residents. 


            The Town Manager serves as the public face of the Town in its day-to-day operations, and in effect serves as the chief executive officer of our Town.  Our current Town Manager has been in that position for a period of ten or more years.  There are no term limits on how long a single individual can serve as Town Manager.  Under these circumstances, I would note, even a well-qualified person performing the role of Town Manager, who holds that office over an extended period of time, may become too comfortable, even somewhat lazy, if there is no means of holding that person accountable to the residents, on a regular basis.


          This is really a problem of an institutional nature, perhaps inevitable, given the fact that we have a paid staff with considerable technical expertise, which answers to a part-time, volunteer Town Council, which depends upon the expertise of the paid staff.


A good Town Manager should be more than a technician knowledgeable as to the intricacies of procedure.  He or she should be a problem solver and a “people person”, and should perform his or her job with foresight, sensitivity, and creativity.


          Town Council members are held accountable to the residents through regularly scheduled elections.  However, there is no similar mechanism for holding the Town Manager accountable to the residents.


           At other levels of government, we elect the public servant who serves the executive function.  At the County level, we elect the County Executive.  At the State level, we elect the Governor.  At the national level, we elect the President.  I would contend that the Town Manager in our Town holds an analogous position.  I am not suggesting that we elect the Town Manager, but I am suggesting that we need to insert a level of accountability with respect to the office of Town Manager to the residents that does not now exist.


Here us my proposal: every other year, when the election for Town Council members is held,  I would include on the ballot a place for residents to vote to approve, or disapprove, the performance of the Town Manager, and continuation of his/her contract with the Town.  A No vote would generate a session before the Town Council, wherein the Town Manager would be called in to explain his or her performance.  The residents’ vote would not necessarily be binding upon the Council, but the very fact that the Town Manager would know he would be held accountable in this way, would, presumably, motivate him or her to do the job well.


          Let me give you an example of where there was a major failing in this regard.  The names of the parties involved are not important to this discussion, but I will note a personal interest in this matter.  I am sure there are other examples as well.  If anyone knows of any similar examples, I would like to know about them.


          An application was made for a building permit to build a house twice the size of the house it replaced.  This was several years ago, and the new building ordinance (FAR) had just been enacted.  The property where the new construction was to take place had at its border a shared driveway, which dated back to1928.  The neighbor to the project did not consent to the building plans, and adamantly protested at the Pre-Pac.  Her concerns were ignored, and the new house was built.  But nothing was done about the shared driveway at the time, even though the position of a new two-car door garage called for major changes to the shared driveway itself.  Years later, after the new house had been built, and the grassy strip down the center of the driveway rendered a muddy mess by vehicles driving over it, the new homeowners decided to have the shared driveway repaved in a manner consistent with their overall building plan.  But evidently no one from the Town staff had thought to advise the new owners that in order to make the changes that they wished to make with respect to the driveway, they would need both a permit to repave the driveway, and the consent of the neighbor, who had opposed the new construction from the beginning.


          Why was the new homeowner in the situation above not advised in advance by the Town staff that changes to the driveway which were integral to the overall success of the project would have to be both approved by the neighbor, and subject to the Town’s granting a permit?  I submit that this is a prime example of a Town Manager’s only meeting the bare requirements of his job, not being a problem solver or a people person, and not being sensitive to the needs of both neighbors in this situation.  The manner in which this matter was handled demonstrates a lack of both foresight and creativity. As a Town, we can do better than that.


          I would be interested in receiving feedback from residents, both with regard to my specific proposal, and also with respect to any other specific examples where the Town Manager and/or Town staff failed, while performing their duties, to meet the expectations of Town residents.

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